This is People Who Podcast, where we talk to the people behind some of the most fun and interesting podcasts available today. Why do they make their shows? What do they love about them? And is podcasting actually a viable career option to today’s recent batch of graduates?
I listen to a lot of podcasts. I write this column where I interview people that make podcasts. I also hear about a lot of podcasts, and I know that to stand out in this crowded and mostly free and competitive field, you have to offer something really unique.
Jules and James is really unique. The concept of two young strangers meeting in an accidental phone call is a very simple one, but this podcast really connects with its audience in a nuanced way in conversations about dreaming and art and happiness.
In the setup, Jules, a filmmaker in London, accidentally calls James while she is working on a film called “Does the Moon Dream of the Sun at Night”. James, a painter living in Paris, tells her that she is a sign that he is meant to stay in Paris. He says he was about to give up his dream of being a painter unless the phone rang, and his enthusiasm keeps her on the phone. She in turn is intrigued because his name is Jim and her favorite film is the French New Wave classic Jules and Jim.
This simple germ of an idea is a frame to hang deep conversations between two characters getting to know each other in a profoundly open way without any preconceived notions. They express deep desires and dreams to each other as one might when you feel that you have nothing to lose, and a very human need to unburden yourself to another.
It’s startling how authentic it feels with the awkward pauses and the intermittent speaker hissing sound. I felt like I was on a three way phone call with them, and I’d just stumbled into a really private moment.
The conversations never stay flat or feel forced, but instead have a natural ebb and flow; a give and take between two parties who have let their defenses down.
If you have a beating heart in your body, you will quickly find yourself drawn in, and believing in the power of fate to bring two people together.
At the end of the first episode James musters up the courage to ask if they can talk on the phone again. Jules agrees, but sets up a ground rule that their conversations have to be a half hour once a week. On its face, this convention obviously sets up the narrative structure explaining why their talks always wrap up in a convenient podcast length of thirty minutes. I imagine eventually this format could grow stultifying for the ever eager James, but I’m sure it’ll be explained and challenged as the show goes on. Besides, if the show didn’t feel so much like a real conversation between two interesting people then this strict time limit would feel even more artificial than it is.
I was charmed by this pair of dreamers, and loved listening to them talk about movies and art, and what they want to do with their lives, and how terrified they both are of success and failure.
I was so excited by this blooming romance that I traveled to Alexandria to talk about it with Jennifer Schwed, the show’s creator.
Observer: Were you inspired by anything in particular with the idea of the two moons in the movie that Jules is directing? There’s a film called Another Earth that has that idea as a backdrop.
Jennifer Schwed: The two moons is from a recurring dream that I have that predates that movie. In the dream I’m doing very normal things, then I look up and there are two moons in the sky. I know that dream needs to be analyzed and broken down, there’s something going on there.
Maybe you should commission a painter to paint it.
Jennifer: Well, that actually may happen.
Where do you pull some of your other ideas from? I’m thinking of the part about tv and film being too passive.
Jennifer: I love tv. I love it. I think a lot of tv and film can be inherently passive entertainment but that doesn’t mean it’s not good or enjoyable. I’m just showing another side of the argument. There are people who just say “I don’t like tv. It doesn’t appeal to me”, and I’m trying to reach that point of view. I didn’t want it to sound negative if someone doesn’t like television. I get it. It’s only recently that I’ve decided to watch a lot more tv shows.
Why did you originally make three episodes available before the official launch May 22nd?
Jennifer: I just didn’t know what I was doing, and I have twenty four episodes for this season. This was before I had anyone to help me with anything. So I just wanted to put the first three out there and see what happens. So there was no plan and now they’re going out weekly.
That sounds like it’s going to be a lot of work. How many people are on your team?
Jennifer: Besides the two actors, I record the calls and edit them all. I have a digital media strategist. I also have the other person who runs the production company I work for and he’s there to help direct the episodes as well. I’ve been using somebody to help with the rest of the production, and I do the design for the video campaign that we have coming out soon.
Twenty Four episodes? I was not expecting that.
Jennifer: I have a lot to say.
Apparently! You said that’s in Season 1, so you have it planned beyond that?
Jennifer: In season 2 you’ll be able to meet the characters online and interact with them. I was kind of inspired by Night Vale, and I want to take it on the road and make it more than just a podcast, but a live theater event. I saw what they were doing with their podcast and I thought “I can do that too.” That’s my wheelhouse, doing productions and performances.
That sounds incredibly exciting.
Jennifer: For me it is.
I know! I can see that. That’s a big dream! How long would you say you’ve had these kind of big dreams?
Jennifer: My whole life since I was a little girl.
When I was younger I made a mini golf course in my backyard, what were some of your little kid grand projects?
Jennifer: I’ve always felt very adultlike, and I don’t remember being childlike. But building a golf course is very adult. You had a capitalist aspiration. As a child I was just writing stories and reading, and I think as I got older I became more immature, and more inclined to do the creative crazy things that I always wanted to do. So I’m probably devolving a bit at the moment.
So you never tried to run away when you were a child?
Jennifer: I don’t think so. Is that a common thing?
I’m just leading into talking about James.
Jennifer: Oh. (laughs)
What’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve done? Moving to France is pretty crazy.
Jennifer: So, here’s the thing, as an avowed introvert and homebody, most of my adventures have come from things I made up in my head. I would never be that spontaneous, because in addition to being an introvert there’s also the type A thing that comes into it. I wouldn’t just pick up and move, that would be crazy. So a lot of what comes up in the show are things I think would be really cool to do. I can’t say I would do anything as ridiculous as James has on the show, but it’s working out for him.
I never know how specific you should ask creatives about things in the future like what’s coming up next. Like will we see obstacles that pull them apart? That’s what a story is right?
Jennifer: They have obstacles. There are things that come up throughout the episodes and they will encounter some issues in the second season that come between them.
Do you have conversation markers marked off, like the first time she says something to him or vice-versa?
Jennifer: I outline what they’re going to talk about in terms of how things are going to hit in the conversation, but the little segways and twists and turns are all spur of the moment.
Oh so a lot of it is improvised a little bit?
Jennifer: No they’re not. On my end, I sort of plan topics, but not where it’s going to go. Emotionally, I side with whatever they’re saying that seems natural to the conversation.
Will anything be tv over the top, like one character getting amnesia or anything?
Jennifer: Do not see that coming.
No game show episodes?
Jennifer: No, just a lot of great conversations. I hope.
Which character in the podcast do you more closely identify as? Like James says “Who are you in the film?”
Jennifer: I probably identify a little more with Jules, but they’re definitely both parts of my personality. But I would have to say I identify more with Jules.
Here’s another question from the podcast. Where do you draw the line between art and commerce?
Jennifer: Do they answer it in the show? I probably had an answer for that question at the time.
Back in the 60’s Bob Dylan went electric, and the audience went crazy. Now he does commercials and writes books. If they wanted you to do coffee mugs and t-shirts would you do that?
Jennifer: Sure if somebody wanted it. I don’t think that disrupts the story at all but who knows, we’ll see.
Dream big enough and it’ll happen right? You have to be very specific.
Jennifer: Oh that’s right, the universe is listening.
Where do you want this podcast to go as far as making more episodes, what’s your dream for the podcast?
Jennifer: My dream is for the second season to do with it what I want to do with it, which is being able to put some of the characters where they are. Meaning, I’d like to be able to film them where we find them in the podcast. I’d like to be able to flesh out their lives, like shooting some scenes of her film for instance. Also, you had mentioned James’s artwork with the two moons and commissioning artists and that is something that we want to do. I really want bring this to life and give a window to their lives. It feels a bit like eavesdropping though.
It does feel like eavesdropping! It feels like picking up the phone when you didn’t mean to. I’m sure there’s a term for that, like for phone lines getting crossed and you hear something that you weren’t meant to hear. Did that ever happen to you when you were a kid before cell phones were a thing?
Jennifer: Yeah and you could hear another conversation going on, yes. For the introverts that ability to listen in, but not have to participate is really appealing. I’ve had people tell me they feel guilty listening to the podcast, so that’s a good sign.
You would probably react very strangely if someone came up to you and said “you’re my inspiration” like James did to Jules in the podcast. He called her his sign.
Jennifer: I think it’s because of where they are in their lives at that age in their late 20’s; they’re so much more open to those kinds of conversations and weird meetings.
There’s a Nicolas Cage movie like that, about a waitress that sells him a lottery ticket and he thinks that fate brought them together. It seems to be a popular idea in fiction.
Jennifer: I remember that movie vaguely and Bridgett Fonda was the waitress. Yeah, I don’t know how I’d react to that now. I’m a little busy and tied up. If I heard someone tell me that now I’d probably say “good luck” (laughs)
Would you ever be open to making a short film?
Jennifer: You know after I started writing Jules and James I realized it was very reminiscent of Before Sunrise. I love the charm of the conversations. I’m very drawn to that kind of synergy. I realized that the kind of conversations I was writing that sound like eavesdropping could easily translate to other avenues.
How would you classify your brand of storytelling.
Jennifer: Everything I write is totally different. I think Jules and James is pretty straightforward, but it wanders.
Jules and James have a 30 minute rule for their conversations. What rules do you have for their world that you won’t go outside of?
Jennifer: I want this to feel good. I don’t want people to listen to it and have to worry about something dark and evil coming; because that’s like life, and dark and terrible things happen. I want this to be entertainment where you’re just taken away for a half hour into somebody else’s world.